For the second time, I rode in the Seattle-to-Portland (STP) Bike Ride. This is an enormous, organized group ride that traverses the 200+ miles separating these two awesome cities in the Pacific Northwest. Normally, I don’t blog about events that aren’t races or training camps, but I thought I’d capture my thoughts for the next time I have to do a really long ride in the middle of race season. I’ll try to keep the report brief and focus on my observations and tips at the end.
The STP is one of the nation’s biggest organized bike rides with over 10,000 riders covering the 200+ miles from Seattle to Portland either in one-day or two days. The course varies just a little between years and so the same familiar landmarks (usually a big hill) evokes the same groans or cheers year after year. With over 10,000 riders on the busy roads, accidents are bound to happen– fortunately, few of them involve automobiles. Instead, the typical accident happens when a faster rider is overtaking a group of slower riders– and a slower rider darts unexpectedly towards the left. To avoid these kind of accidents, it helps to leave VERY early (typically around 5:00 am)– waiting just an hour more completely changes the experience. The STP itself is wonderfully organized with lots of well-provisioned food stops about every 25-30 miles.
I volunteered to ride with my friends (Brendon, Kirsten, Mike, and Susan) this year as part of a two-day ride. Brendon and Kirsten are STP veterans and they introduced me to the ride years ago. Mike has ridden it once unofficially but many years ago and his wife Susan was a newcomer to the event. My group leads very active professional and personal lives that usually don’t leave a lot of time for the volume of racing that I normally do; three weeks in Australia followed by two weeks in Spain a few months later probably isn’t very easy to fit into their schedules but was relatively easy to slip into mine.
At the other end of the spectrum, my challenge was two-fold. First, my training is for events that last about 2 hours– not 12 or more hours. Between running and cycling, I’m lucky if I can get over 8 hours in the saddle in a week and certainly not over the course of two days. Thus all of my training usually involves a good dose of intensity, typically above FTP. The longest ride I had done before STP was a paltry 50-miles, but it was quite intense. The question I had going into STP was whether intensity can compensate for volume at an event like this. Second, as I mentioned in my race report from USAT Duathlon Nationals, my body has been a teetering stack of Jenga blocks over the last few months as I’ve had a rash of injuries.
Day 1: Feeling Strong
Day 1 was riding from Seattle to Centralia. I wanted to get some decent training effects from the ride so I oscillated between about 10-20 minutes of hard riding and about 30 minutes of relatively easy riding. This was a slightly diluted version of my relatively intense 50 miles rides, which were just a continuous loop of 10 minutes at FTP and 10 minutes mid zone 2 (I found this to be a great workout that quickly spiked my fitness– but it can also be really, really, really hard). There was no way that I could ride a workout like that for 200 miles so it had to be trimmed down a little bit.
There’s a strong temptation to hop in one of the infinite numbers of ad hoc pelotons during a rides like this. I completely avoided this– I wanted to set my own watts for the ride and not be coasting or easily spinning behind someone else. This was a training ride, after all.
Our group did remarkably well during our first day. Kirsten and I tended to venture a bit ahead sometimes but we made it a point to always settle back and make sure that everyone was doing fine. Susan and Mike were rock steady throughout the ride, tapping out a consistent rhythm. Brendon did great as well but, being a very tall person, he did catch more than his fare share of wind.
Day 2: At Least It Started Strong…
In Act 3 of La Traviata, the main protagonist Violetta lies dying from tuberculosis. Verdi’s famous opera culminates with Violetta standing up and briefly singing about how pain and suffering have left her body– and then she suddenly falls dead into her former lover’s arms as the curtain drops. Such is the euphoria that sometimes precedes death. And so it was on Day 2 of STP for me.
Between the start and about mile 60, I was doing great. I started a little slow because I was still stiff from the previous day. But little by little, I started riding harder and mini pace lines started forming behind me during the surges that I made. At one point, Susan and Mike had to ride ahead and I was given the task of speeding things up again to catch up. This was easily my fastest surge of the day and I wasn’t going to let anyone take away my fun. So I just rode pretty hard, almost approaching my race effort, for at least 5-10 miles. At one point, we had about a dozen people following in the group. Brendon had some funny stories later on about this effort, including comments from folks in the pace line and some very impressive Strava results.
After the next rest stop, I had to keep going ahead because I needed to make it to Portland earlier than the rest of the group. I had planned a visit to a shop that closed about 2 hours ahead of our original ETA. This shortened how much time (and nutrition) I took in at the rest stop— this was a VERY bad mistake.
About 20 miles down the road, somewhere around 60 miles, the wheels just fell completely off the truck. Even though I was on one of the best provisioned rides in the country, I managed to bonk. Now, I could barely manage half the watts I had been putting out previously. Fortunately, I was able to tag along with another rider who was quite fast yet merciful and he pulled me to the next rest stop at 75 miles. After refueling at that rest stop, I started the final push into Portland, only to encounter another problem. My left lateral hamstring tendon felt very tight and I received a nice shock up and down my leg. After a few miles, it would warm up and I only got the pain if I pushed really hard. But my energy was still bad after the bonk.
Right before finishing the STP, I took a short detour to visit the Athlete’s Lounge. I try to visit this awesome triathlon shop every time I’m in Portland. But, unfortunately, this also gave my hamstring tendon a chance to cool down. When I left the shop, my hamstring tendon reminded me it was there by not even allowing me to cycle a full pedal stroke without giving me a nice shock. I tried a light stretch of my hamstring and a bit of pressure along with an active release maneuver. This got me to make the movement of a pedal stroke but I still couldn’t push down. On the ride back to STP finish, I had to ride up the incline for the Broadway Bridge. As I started up the hill, I had to quickly unclip and get off my bike or I would have fallen off! It was as if my entire left knee had just failed me! At that moment, a father on a bike with his son in a trailer passed me. I remember the boy gave me a look of utter disgust that only a child could give (a slightly pouty grimace, as if to say, “you don’t even deserve to be on the same road as my awesome dad!”). After struggling and stretching some more, I painfully rode my bike the rest of the way up the bridge and onto the finish.
I had a few moments to organize myself before the rest of our group made it across the finish line. I made it a point to cheer for them about a half block before the finish line. Brendon and Kirsten came across the line first and Susan and Mike followed shortly afterwards. Everyone in the group looked a lot better than I felt!
So that’s my short summary of the ride– now for the tips and lessons learned.
Observation 1: Intensity Can Compensate for Volume
I mentioned that the longest ride that I had done in the year leading up to this year’s STP was 50 miles. In fact, apart from my shorter training rides of about 10-20 miles, I only rode 50 miles twice before STP. But, the 50 mile course and workout that I use are a particularly nasty one. For those who know the Seattle area, I ride from Marymoor Park in Redmond, down East Lake Sammamish Road, through Issaquah, and on to Ravensdale and then I turn around and ride back. It gets quite punishing past Issaquah. For the last two rides, I would ride 10 minutes at FTP and 10 minutes of mid-zone 2 effort. Easy huh? Well, not so easy if you repeat this 20-minutes cycle for almost 2-1/2 hours! But I have also found that this workout is super-effective at developing power and strength quickly.
I think that if I had to ride this kind of ride again, I would train the same way but maybe repeat this workout on back-to-back weekend days. Apart from bonking and an avoidable hamstring issue (see below), I could have easily done STP on just two pairs of these rides over consecutive weekends (four rides total).
Even with my reduced volume and greater focus on intensity, I think I could have managed STP at a gentle pace easily with just the two 50 miles rides I had in the bank. But who wants to ride at a gentle pace? And to maintain any amount of intensity means training at some intensity. For this, back-to-back 50 miles rides of the FTP/Zone 2 that I described above probably would have been perfect.
Observation 2: Nutrition is Easy on Big Supported Rides– Be Sure to Take It
When I was training for Zofingen a few years ago, I rode a longer course by extending my 50-mile ride into a full century (100 mile) ride. Again, for those who know Seattle, I would turn left in Ravensdale and continue to Enumclaw and return the same way.
But I always suffered on those long rides because of poor nutrition. Eating gels and bars isn’t nearly as nice as getting real food (granted, bananas, oranges and mini sandwiches) on the road. These long supported rides are really a luxury– and I have to believe that it mimics more of what the Grand Tour riders get in their nutrition bags along the course.
But, as I learned on Day 2, it only works if you take full advantage of these rest stops– even if you’re in a rush. Really. Learn from my Mistakes. Failing to adequately fuel can lead to some very uncomfortable circumstances down the road if you don’t take in enough nutrition at each of the stops– and once the tank goes dry, it might not be possible to rebuild that energy. This is particularly true if you’re not a hard core endurance junkie and, like me, skimped on the mileage earlier in the season.
Observation 3: Do Your Strength Training Before Doing One of These Rides
My left lateral hamstring tendon feels much better now but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t in serious trouble on the ride this weekend. Then again, my whole posterior chain hasn’t been doing well for the last two months. Again, as I’ve mentioned in a couple of posts now, this is where winter and early season strength training comes in.
Also, it’s important to make sure you’re muscularly efficient and that you use your glutes a lot. In my case, it all comes down to my butt (or lack thereof). The gluteal muscles are your biggest and strongest muscles in your body. When my hamstrings started acting up, I knew exactly why– my glutes weren’t working as efficiently as they should and, now that I had a few too many miles already accumulated, my body had compensated by making my hamstrings take up too much of the load. Also, bonking probably didn’t help in convincing my glutes to throw in the towel. This extended load on the hamstrings something that they were meant to do. And, even though my hamstrings are plenty strong right now, they should never have been put in this position in the first place– and it’s all because my glutes were being lazy. Obviously, I’ll be focusing on getting my glutes to activate (as well as relaxing my inhibitory muscles like my hip flexors). But it would have really helped to have thought about this two months before STP!
Tip 1: Have a Plan for the Miles in Oregon for STP
The STP ride can by divided geographically and mentally into two stages– the Washington stage and the Oregon stage. The Washington stage is scenic, fun, and long (about 150 miles?). The roads are narrow but the drivers are courteous. Cross the bridge into Oregon and the STP route becomes miserable. While the roads are wider, the drivers are more obnoxious and there is frequently a rumble strip right next to the bike lane. Also, the asphalt is rougher and, on a hot day, you can really bake because there is less tree coverage. The winds can be brutal and the road seems to always be going up, even if your elevation changed only a few inches per mile. In short, I find the Oregon side to be much more taxing, physically and mentally. This rougher part of the ride also comes at exactly the wrong time. When it hit, I said to myself, “Oh crap… I remember this awful stretch…” Of course, my feelings this year were made much more intense by my poor nutrition and an aching knee.
So if you’re thinking about riding the STP, have a plan ready for the Oregon stage of the ride. It may be only about 50 miles long, but it can feel like an eternity. Also, make sure you have PLENTY of food and liquid onboard at the last Washington aid station.
Tip 2: Don’t Be the First One to Load Your Bike on the Truck and Choose a Low-Numbered Truck (or Just Pick Up Your Bike the Next Day)
If you have to get your bike back to Seattle, try to go along with a group that can drive you back. But if you must take the bus, be forewarned– your bike needs to go on a separate truck and that truck takes forever to load and unload.
On the left is a picture of my speedy steed being loaded onto one of the trucks. You can see that I was one of the first guys to load onto the truck. The bikes are carefully protected with moving blankets and they can hold about ten bikes across. The delay happens when they finish loading a row of bikes because they have to construct a shelf to support a row of bikes above the bikes that they just loaded.
On the right is a picture of later in the loading process. You can see the shelf on the truck where another layer of bikes is being loaded. Building the shelves goes remarkably fast and is ingenious– basically, two crossbars attach to the metal vertical rails going up the side of the truck and then a sheet of thick plywood is laid down to act as a floor. But is still takes time and, with about ten rows of bikes front to back, this adds up to a LOT of time. And, because this process has to go in reverse when unloading, it also means that there are a lot of delays at the Seattle end.
I made two big mistakes when it came to bike loading. First, I chose truck 12 instead of truck 11 (there is a big number on the door of the truck). As I found out later than night, the trucks leave in the order that they numbered (several trucks load simultaneously). Second, I was one of the first guys to load onto the truck– meaning that I would be one of the last guys unloaded from this truck.
The drive to Seattle took a long time but the time passed quickly. We arrived in Seattle around 11:30p and, when we went to retrieve our bikes, I realized the error of my ways. By the time we arrived, they had just started to unload truck 11 and no one was available yet to unload truck 12. While my friends were able to get their bikes quickly, my bike probably didn’t make it off the truck until 2:00 am.
Tip 3: Leave Some Extra Room in Your Bag and Pack a Spare Cell Phone Battery
If you decide to take the bus back, you’re going to have to load your bike on the truck. But you (and the guys on the truck) don’t want anything on that bike that may fall off in transit or handling. This means anything detachable (water bottles, computers, saddle bags, pumps, etc) all need to come off the bike. But where to put it? Hence the need for extra room in your bag.
Also, that ride back to Seattle is a long one and you’ll likely want to catch up on email and brag about your accomplishments on social media. But if you’re like most people, your cell phone has already been on all day. Be sure to have an extra cell phone battery so you can keep up-to-date. In fact, pack two and your friends will be forever in your debt.
Tip 4: Get Aero!
The STP can be a very windy ride indeed. Saving just a couple of watts through basic aerodynamics (and rolling resistance) adds up to huge advantage after 200 miles.
First, there’s the wheels. When selecting my wheels for this year, I opted for a Zipp 808 Firecrest clincher in the rear and a 404 Firecrest clincher in the front. This is my usual training setup and it worked great. I also race on this setup on ferociously windy days when riding a disk wheel would be suicidal (my normal racing setup is an 808 front and Super-9 disk in the rear). The wheels are utterly bombproof but weigh hardly anything. Another key advantage is that it is super easy to change a tire on these wheels– I never have to use tire levers and this easy fit also greatly reduces pinch flats. I also took some risks by riding with latex tubes and pretty thin, speedy tires (Specialized Turbo Cottons at 95 PSI). If Tony Martin can ride this combination in TdF time trials, they’re probably more than fast enough for me. But I didn’t get a single flat despite the fact that I am very confident in saying that my rolling resistance was probably the lowest of the 10,000 riders doing this year’s ride (don’t take my word for it– here’s a review of how fast these tires are). There’s some debate about whether latex tubes get fewer flats than normal butyl tubes but three other factors made latex tubes an easy decision for STP. First, they are much lighter and have much better rolling resistance than butyl tubes. Simply put, wheels go faster with latex tubes every time and without exception. Second, they pack up much smaller so I can carry two tubes in my (tiny) saddle bag instead of just one. Third– and this is the killer reason– they make the ride much more supple and comfortable than butyl tubes. Sure, they cost more and yes they have to be “topped off” with a little bit of air before each ride. But try a set and see if you can’t feel the immediate difference in how supple the ride becomes. Add in a really nice tire like the Turbo cottons and the ride is pretty indistinguishable from riding handmade silk tubulars (from experience, the ride is pretty darn identical). Now, magnify that small difference over 200 miles and it’s a game changer. My riding buddies also reported that my wheels made a distinct “hum,” which I only noticed when I was riding next to a guy with a set of deep Reynolds wheels. So I suppose there is a touch of a “coolness factor” to the combination. Who says fashion can’t be functional?
Next is the kit. I’ve really come to think that clothing makes a big difference in aerodynamics. Just compare the time differences between riding in a true TT (where I’m wearing a long sleeve speed suit) and in a multisport race (where there is lots of un-aerodynamic skin exposed– along with bulky shoulder seams) and it’s clear that SOMETHING is going on and making me go much faster in a time trial. And I think that “something” is mostly clothing. I absolutely love the Castelli Sanremo speed suits— and particularly the Velocissimo Sanremo Suit. They aren’t terribly durable (the jersey portion is made of a thin, gossamer-like fabric that breathes well but also pills and runs easily) but it is fast. Wicked fast. But the Sanremo kits are also the most comfortable kit I’ve ever worn. Like a true one-piece speed suit, they have no annoying waistbands or shoulder straps and nothing ever rides up or down during the ride. But, unlike a true skin suit, the fit isn’t overly aggressive and it’s easy to strip down when nature calls. Lastly, on super hot days, it’s easy to fully unzip like a regular jersey– it just looks like you’re wearing a really great fitting kit instead of a speed suit. In fact, it’s so comfortable that I usually find myself reaching for this kit when I’m doing indoor rides on the trainer. I also had a Giro Synthe MIPS helmet. The “Synthe” part is their new design, which they claim in one of the most aerodynamic road helmets in the world. The “MIPS” part is a floating inner layer that dramatically adds to the safety factor. The combination is perfect for a massive windy ride like this. Adding to the coolness factor are two little ports that hold my sunglasses perfectly.
Last is the bike fit. As the photo of my bike should reveal, I ride a fairly aggressive fit– the tops of my handlebars are way below my saddle. Sure, it means a bit more neck pain. But I’ve always believed that we should try to go with the most aggressive fit that we can manage. Aerodynamic drag REALLY slows us down and our body position is the single most drag-inducing feature when we’re cycling.
Now you might be thinking, “the STP isn’t the Tour de France and I’m not super-fast or going for a stage win, so why should I worry about aerodynamics?” In response, I’d ask, “if you could ride STP on a bike that was 10 pounds lighter, would you do it?” I bet you wouldn’t hesitate a millisecond to agree. But the fact of the matter is that aerodynamics trumps weight every time in terms of performance. Well, maybe not on a time trial up Mount Washington, but every other time. And I really believe that the few things I do to improve aerodynamics more than makes up a ten pound bike weight difference– probably more like 15 pounds. Add to that the lower rolling resistance and added comfort of a nice set of tires and some latex tubes and the advantage really becomes unfair.
Tip 5: Clothing to Carry
If there’s a chance of rain, I like to carry the Castelli Sottile Due Vest along with a set of Castelli water-repellant Nanoflex Arm Warmers. If it were autumn or spring, I might carry a full jacket but a full sleeve jacket is horrible in the wind. The vest and arm warmers pack up pretty small– easily fitting in one pocket in my kit
The last time I was down at the Athlete’s Lounge, however, I picked up probably the most functional darn piece of clothing for cool days when rain isn’t in the forecast. It’s called the Castelli 10M Lung Warmer. It packs into nothing (really, infinitely smaller than the lightest vest) and is basically a highly-technical dickey. It provides a ton of wind protection and just enough neck/chest coverage to make a tissue-thin jersey more than warm enough on a chilly morning. Then, once things heat up, it can be pulled off with one hand and it disappears into a rear pocket. I will definitely be taking this on all future long morning rides.
Tip 6: Leave Around 5:00 am If Possible
Apologies, I added this tip after this post went live. Before this year’s STP, I thought long and hard about what time to get on the road. The problem was that, with 10,000 riders on the road, there were a lot of accidents. It seemed like there were accidents all around me on my last ride of the STP. I talked with some of the folks at the Cascade Bicycle Club and they thought that between 5:00am and 5:30 was a sweet spot for leaving– not too early but also less crowded. They were exactly right.
On Day 2, leaving out of Centralia, we left around 6:00am because the trucks would accept our bags after 6:00am. Consequently, I feel like we hit a lot more traffic on the second day than the first day. Next time, it would be nice to avoid this. One way is to choose a stop much further down the road than Centralia. This was our strategy on our first STP and it worked great. I found out (much too late) that there are trucks leaving for Portland at a bunch of different locations. I think one sound idea is to choose a location around mile 120 or 130, verify that there will be a truck leaving from that location that can carry my bag, and finding a hotel near that spot. That would avoid the crush on Day 2, make for an easier second day, and also avoid the steep markup for the hotel (my room in Centralia is normally $95, but just for STP it cost $240 because there were so many people staying in that town). But if you insist on staying in Centralia, a second strategy is just to camp out at the luggage truck before 5:00am and be one of the first people to get your bag on the truck (and one of the first one the road out of Centralia).
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